New immigrant from South Africa Byron Gerber had not been in Israel a week and he was already running for cover. Currently residing on a kibbutz in the Negev, Gerber decided to visit Beersheba. Unlike the welcome he and some 70 other new olim had received at Ben-Gurion Airport, with representatives of the government, the Jewish Agency and Telfed (the South African Zionist Federation), this time he was welcomed by a Grad missile from Gaza.
Gerber was quite philosophical about the experience. "At least there was a siren and I had a minute's warning." In South Africa, he had not been so lucky.
In 2005, two armed robbers broke into his Johannesburg home and shot him in his arm, right lung, kidney and liver. He lay in intensive care for nearly four months. Later, in an unprecedented move attracting national media attention, Gerber instituted legal action against South Africa's minister of safety and security for "failing in terms of the Constitution to protect the life, limb and property" of its citizens.
Although the police took pictures of the crime scene, "it was my friends who eventually found the bullet that had passed through me and then - can you believe it - the police lost it," he recounted. Apparently, the inspector died during the investigation and Gerber's case, like so many others in South Africa, "got shelved." But he was not prepared to "just leave it" - hence his civil suit against the minister. "I'm a bull terrier. I know I'll have to fly back and forth to South Africa for court appearances, but I am fighting for justice not only for myself but for all the ordinary, law-abiding citizens in South Africa."
Gerber's justifiable focus on crime in his former country reflects the sentiments of many of the new immigrants from South Africa who spoke to Metro.
Andrew Brown arrived in Israel with his wife, Anne, and three young children on December 31. He felt awkward speaking negatively about his former country. "It's a beautiful place, wonderful people. The place truly has soul. Also, it's an emerging market offering so much opportunity." But then, there is the "flip side."
Until some nine months ago, the word out was that emigrants were returning. No more! "People from all races, who are in a position to leave, are doing so, mainly to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Overseas companies, especially in the mining sector, as well as hospitals, are head-hunting in South Africa, making offers that are hard to refuse."
Why are they leaving? "It's not safe anywhere, whether on foot, in your car or in your home. While the will of the political establishment is to fight crime, the infrastructure to do so is absent. A police force that is poorly paid has little motivation to meaningfully combat crime. The cases take so long to process through the courts and criminals who are arrested are usually free on the streets within weeks."
"The medical system, too, is unraveling," sighs Andrew.
The Browns first applied to move to Australia and received entry visas. "We thought long and hard and opted instead for Israel. Had we gone to Australia, our motivation would have been purely a push factor: to merely clear out of South Africa. Coming to Israel, it is very much a 'pull' factor, as well. We feel we have left home but also returned home. We're very happy with our decision."
What of arriving during a state of war and with such young kids? "We've been through much worse," says Andrew's wife, Anne. "In 2005 we were on an island in the Far East when the tsunami hit. It's a miracle that we are alive today. We are Jewish and want to bring up our children in Israel."
For Barry Varkel, "it has been a long walk from Plett to the Kotel." This new immigrant was expressing the geographic and cultural chasm between Plettenburg Bay - today South Africa's premier coastal resort, where the Varkels lived for the past 12 years - and the Western Wall, where the latest planeload of South Africans were welcomed at an emotional ceremony in early January.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat endeared himself to the new olim with a personal revelation. "Thirty-four years ago, a family from South Africa moved into our street in Jerusalem. Our families became very friendly and I became even friendlier. Today, their beautiful daughter is my wife."
Barkat acknowledged how difficult it was "to learn a new language, find a job and integrate into a new culture." He drew attention to the current war in Gaza: "You have come during a period of trouble, of crisis. But you can also see how Israelis behave during a crisis. We set aside any differences and become one family. We help each other." And this, he said, was what was "special about your community and your organization. Years from now, you will be welcoming and assisting future generations of South African olim."
This month, a group of 60 17-year-old South African high-schoolers visited Israel for two weeks on the Israel Encounter program. Metro joined the group on a tour of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya's campus. Before a presentation by the international school's Vice President Jonathan Davis, a former emissary to South Africa, the students were asked to raise their hands if they intended to study at universities outside South Africa. A whopping 60 percent did (see sidebar). When asked how many would opt to study in Israel, an impressive number of hands shot into the air; only nine indicated Australia, the favorite destination for Jews emigrating from South Africa. This year there are over 50 students from South Africa taking bachelor degrees in business, government and diplomacy, psychology and communication at the IDC, Herzliya.
Lara Greenberg, who made aliya two months ago, is studying at IDC's School of Communication. In South Africa she was a journalist with the South African Jewish Report.
"The South African media is knee-jerk critical of Israel," she told Metro. "There is a mindset of Israel being an apartheid state that resonates with a people who suffered under it but do not know or understand the issues here. By and large we are not talking about an educated or sophisticated readership, and this is exploited by the media. The Zionist Federation and Board of Deputies' Media Committees try their best to counter the bias in the press and TV, but it's an uphill battle."
Greenberg is unfazed. Together with fellow South Africans on campus they have joined a bold initiative by the School of Communication that has set up a "cyber war room" - referred to as the "situation room" - to counter the overseas bias on the war in Gaza. "We have over 100 volunteers operating in different languages focusing on reportage in newspapers, TV networks and blog sites. So we have a German desk, as we do a Dutch, Russian, Spanish, French and English. The latter is divided into the UK, USA, Australasia and South Africa. So we at the South African desk scan South African newspapers, like The Star and the Mail & Guardian, then research the stories and respond. "We are working round the clock," Greenberg explained - which was quite apparent, seeing some of the bleary-eyed students intensely ensconced in front of their computers.
While the antipathy toward Israel in the South African government and the ruling ANC party might be worrying to the Jewish community, "I don't believe it's a factor influencing Jews to leave in the same way crime does," Greenberg said.
Nevertheless, the war in Gaza has heightened tensions in South Africa, particularly among the country's Muslim community. Recent reports out of South Africa are saying that local Muslim radio broadcasts have been airing "increasingly aggressive and inflammatory statements accusing local Jewry of complicity in the 'Zionist brutality,'" with some going so far as to justify the killing of Jews.
The broadcasts called for boycotts and picket protests outside supermarkets and shops stocking Israeli products. The Community Security Organization (CSO) has expressed grave concern at "the level of aggressive radio comments that were now being directed against Jews rather than Israel or Zionists" - a new phenomenon.
Another new immigrant studying at the IDC is Gaby Charnes. She feels that "the South African Jewish community is special. We got it right by creating the balance between religious and secular, a community that engages in social action as well as being Zionist. This is a community that cares and acts." But, she laments, "It's unraveling. The Zimbabwe situation, the ugly display of xenophobia, the prospects of poor political leadership in the future and most of all the crime, are and will drive people away. Most of my friends still in South Africa are planning on leaving after graduation, many of them thinking of Israel."
David Kramer and Dean Schneider are first-year students who have not made aliya. They may do so in the future. Both rattle off the number of times members of their respective families have been car-jacked.
"I think it would be irresponsible to raise a family today in South Africa. It's just not a safe environment," Schneider opined.
For Sheryl Ash of Johannesburg, the impetus to move to Israel came not from violence in South Africa, but a desire to join her deaf son, Simon, who made aliya early in 2008. As a youngster, her son had attended the Catholic St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg. One day, he returned from school and said "I hate Jews." Simon's brother thought it was time he joined a Jewish youth movement. He attended a Betar summer camp and for the first time felt proud to be Jewish.
"Being deaf, I realized he must be struggling with the language," Ash told Metro, "so I thought I would make aliya and help teach Simon Hebrew."
Only it didn't quite work out that way. "Simon is teaching me Hebrew. I'm crying with happiness."
Meanwhile, the arrival on the group flight of Bernard and Pearl Lazarus partially offsets recent criticism that few of South Africa's Zionist leadership actually make aliya. Bernard, over the decades, has held many community leadership positions in Durban. "For me, Israel is home," he says. "I've been coming here for the past 50 years."
Bernard, too, predicts an increase in immigration from South Africa. "It's not that the country is getting worse; it's just not getting better. Crime and affirmative action are crippling the place."
And what of arriving during a war?
"Ma hadash? (What's new?) I was here during the 1956 war, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the first Intifada and the Second Lebanon War. It would be strange if I weren't here!"
The race for higher education
It should come as little surprise that South African youth are opting, in increasing numbers, to study abroad. With affirmative action fairly embedded in the labor market, a further factor of concern has been the perceived drop in educational standards that might prejudice graduates should they emigrate.
Veteran South African journalist Stephen Mulholland wrote an expose last year that South Africa's most prestigious university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), that "has produced no less than four Nobel Prize winners," had introduced a requirement that applicants were "now required to classify themselves racially and that those of color will have lower standards to meet than are demanded of white undergraduates." While acknowledging the danger "of perpetuating the use of race as a criterion for admission to higher education," the UCT's governors explained that it's a policy designed "to redress past discrimination."
Is it any wonder, Mulholland surmises, that so many of South Africa's youth today seek to study at universities abroad?
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